Of Civic Reflection & The Company Called USA, Inc.

Bravo to all of America’s political leaders. Well done. The debt ceiling was raised. Some cuts were made and an unprecedented default was avoided. Problem solved…right? Wrong!

How American it is to wait until we are at the edge of disaster in order to force the hard choices. How American it is to rapidly debate a poorly considered set of decisions that do little, if anything, to fundamentally attack the deep-rooted problems that have been punted down the road for decades. No statesmen were to be found these past months. No one rose above the fray. We live in a time when beautifully designed devices and technologies connect all of us in profound ways and allow for unprecedented collaboration and problem solving, yet American leaders reverted to the shallow governing model of accuse, spin, blame, complain and punt the hardest parts down the field. Waiting until the last minute to remedy the debt ceiling situation is unconscionable.

There are no winners or losers in raising the debt limit. The voiceless generation, now in diapers or learning to download “apps” on their parent’s iPhones, has no idea what future constraints await them. One of the reasons we don’t look deeply at our own problems is that it’s really hard; it takes time and deep reflective thinking. It requires questioning our deepest assumptions and not rationalizing away the stubborn facts that frame the distressed state of the country.

THINKING OF AMERICA AS A COMPANY

In the aftermath of the debt limit debacle, the most reflective thing that every political leader, pundit and U.S. citizen can do (but likely won’t) is take the 43 minutes to learn from financial analyst Mary Meeker as she dissects the “company” called “USA Inc.” Meeker, is a non-partisan financial analyst who reports on the United States as if she were dissecting a company like General Electric. She describes the real balance sheet of my country and often does it by comparing it to an American individual family and how they manage their household. Meeker outlines the real liabilities and revenue flows. Her voice is even, sober and sincere as she puts forth a comprehensive argument. USA Inc. is factual, visual, non-partisan and unassailable. It’s the first report offering a commercial view of the complex enterprise and system known as the United States.

Early in the report Meeker notes, “Our review finds serious challenges in USA Inc.’s financials. The ‘management team’ (read political leadership) has created incentives to spend on healthcare, housing, and current consumption. At the margin, investing in productive capital, education, and technology – the very tools needed to compete in the global marketplace – has stagnated.” Later in the report she suggests, “Now is the time for each of us to delve into our financial crisis and get engaged in this issue so we can preserve our liberty and sustain our prosperity. Our budget crisis isn’t something we can chose to ignore; it is our “duty” to be involved.” As we take a deep breath from the hyperbolic posturing of these past few weeks, we must all read this important report. You can find the report and Mary’s narration video here: http://www.kpcb.com/usainc/

Beyond USA Inc., there are other ways to re-imagine America’s future during this major reset of our psyche. It’s unlikely that President Obama will take these recommendations, as they represent what a CEO would do upon initially taking the helm of USA Inc. What I describe below is far from revolutionary. In fact, I thought about the country’s founding fathers and how they rose to the unmatched moment of intellectual assimilation that defined the architecture of our government. In all the years since then we have done so little to ever replicate such thoughtful moments. Yet, if Obama returns to office or when someone like Mitt Romney takes over, they must consider and act on the following as business as usual only takes America down a clear path of decline:

First, conduct an open, independent and detailed forensic audit of the financial records of the United States federal government. Thinkers like Darryl V. Poole of the Cambridge Institute for Applied Research have been proposing such an action for years. The audit will be “open sourced” on a dedicated web site that allows “we the (American) people” to dig deep on trends and even the report’s footnotes. We need the diagnosis. The citizens of USA. Inc. need to agree on how sick we actually are. Trust no party with the audit—hire Mary Meeker and former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker to conduct the analysis and present their findings within six months.

Second, we must hold a series of well-facilitated, non-partisan town halls (both in person and digital) with Americans of all walks of life in order to comprehend the enormity of what such an audit will reveal. Using the town halls to simultaneously teach and question the essence of each audit conclusion will enable average citizens to understand the complex relationships that define the real spending and revenue architectures already authorized and in need of reform. The feedback collected at these town halls, including “big ideas” and potential remedies should be surfaced by millions of citizens and synthesized into an unprecedented online brief that will become mandatory reading for every U.S. political leader.

Finally, our most senior political leaders (House, Senate and governors) should be locked away in a retreat that lasts for weeks, until the first ever “Strategic Plan of the United States” is drafted, debated and adopted. There would be an incredible amount of listening done at this offsite, as no staffers would be permitted to spin their politician’s way out of the building. There would be massive reading beforehand and during the sessions there would be no emails, text messaging or press conferences allowed. While cautiously avoiding “group think,” our leaders would think as a group – perhaps for the first time in generations.

America is at a point of incoherent communication between political leaders where dueling press conferences serve as a proxy for strategic thinking. Strategy is not born this way. As the founding fathers taught us, strategy takes time to get right. It’s done in person and through reasoned debate. If only the founding fathers had written into the U.S. Constitution the essence of what they lived through during those hot summer days of 1776 in Philadelphia, we could insist that our political leaders follow their guidance as its “Constitutional” to behave like an educated adult capable of holding two competing ideas in one’s brain for short bursts of time.

The big questions addressed at this offsite include how we will find our footing again when there is no common definition of success and a shared vision for our future. If I were facilitating the offsite (as this is what I do for a living), my first ground rule governing the conversations would be that taxes and cost cutting are not to be discussed within the first week of the strategic planning session. You can’t envision a powerful future through the lens of constraints. I would focus on common agreement surrounding the problems we face while devising common language about the levers at our disposal to address the great issues.

OF CONFIDENCE & CIVIC REFLECTION

Recently I attended my dear friend’s surprise birthday party in New York City. His wife chose a lovely French bistro in Tribeca called, “CapsouTo Freres.” At one point during the party, I chatted with one of the owners, Samuel CapsouTo. Sam has wiry gray hair and a kind face. I asked him about the state of his business and his larger sense of this strange moment that we are all living through. N.Y. City relentlessly consumes or destroys poorly run restaurants, so a small business owner like Sam holds a lot of credibility with me.

Referring to America at large he said, “we have lost our confidence.” Then, after an enormous pause that had me hanging on his next word, he smiled and said, “but we have not lost our faith.” Sam then wrote out a formula on a cocktail napkin that sits in his mind as a hopeful symbol transcending the instability of these past years. It read: “WE THE PEOPLE > THAN THE GOVERNMENT.”

If Sam’s formula is right, then we the people have been given yet another moment in which to reorient our thinking and move past the partisan and short-term brinksmanship that dominates our days. To regain our confidence, means rediscovering why we lost it in the first place. We must engage in a sustained period of civic reflection that allows us to see America in a context beyond one where we are permanently at the edge of a cliff. If our current political leaders do not rise above their ingrained habits they will be replaced (yet again). “We the people” must prove ourselves to be expansive thinkers and not just adrenaline junkies swimming within the zero sum game of modern political babble.

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Bill Brantley

1. Government is not a business.

2. It’s government by the people, for the people, and with the people.

3. A majority of the American people don’t bother voting so it is not surprising that we are paralyzed by hyper-partisans. Want the politicians to behave? They will when a majority of the American people start voting.

Peter Sperry

Keep in mind that if governments were run like businesses, 50 percent or more would go bankrupt every year and the most successful would fire the bottom 10 percent of of underperforming employees every year.

Geoffrey C. Patterson

@Daniel, well written and interesting perspective. While Bill may be correct that the government is not a business there are lessons to be learned that can be carried over and applied. The problem is much more than people not voting. If we were to magically make it mandatory for all American citizens of legal age to vote I shudder at the consequence. Education is critical with a strong emphasis on civics and history. I have taught at the secondary and post secondary levels and it’s frightening the lack of basics our children are receiving. We as shareholders in USA, Inc. are failing to provide the course correction necessary to make the progress that needs to be made. Unfortunately, given our current political climate this will be yesterday’s news and the 15 minutes of attention will pass.

@Bill, BTW … it’s “government of the people, by the people and for the people” as credited to President Lincoln during his Gettysburg Address.

Alan L. Greenberg

Well said. I tend to be less analytical and more emotional. See my latest blog on this subject. If the USA was a company it would either be out of business or get a bailout because it is ‘too big to fail.” Our political “leaders” have absolutely failed us because of their petty dickering and attention to self-serviing interests. Now we have a major blow from a company which downgraded the credit rating of the US. These same jokers rated subprime mortgage junk as AAA. Who are we to believe? As a sidelight to all that has been going on I heard one analyst observe this morning that that the increased cost of borrowing as result of the downgrade may effectively wipe out the “savings” incorporated in the agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

Susan Thomas

I don’t like brinksmanship. There is plenty of that in Congress, as we have seen. If these political leaders would just do what is right for the whole rather than themselves, we would not be in such dire straits. All they seemed concerned with is the next election.

Pat Fiorenza

I always get a little uneasy when we refer to government as a business and customers as citizens. But, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the private sector – lessons on efficiency/management/performance review/innovation, etc.. nevertheless, the public sector and private are inherently different. I like the suggestions above, except the retreat for Congress. This would not be a transparent event and would ruin any strides made in the town halls and open forums. The point is correct though, our most senior leaders do not talk to each other enough and lack a personal relationship- it’s a shame, leaders are typically only on the hill a few days a week and then return to their given districts. Leaders certainly need to talk to one another more often to work towards common ground and build on shared commitments.

Bill Brantley

@Geoffrey: Interesting comment in that you shudder at the idea of more people voting because they lack the education to understand the issues. I agree that we need an educated populace to make a democracy work but the alternative we currently have with a minority of voters actually voting certainly doesn’t work. I would hate to think that our current political situation is a result of only the “smart folks” voting.

Thanks for correction on the quote. I was paraphrasing but what Lincoln said is why government is not a business. Yes, we can borrow some ideas from business but I tire of the politicians who consider business to be inherently superior to anything government does. Businesses exist to make money and are only beholden to their stockholders (or owners if they are a privately-held company). Governments serve a more fundamental purpose and citizens. Some politicians forget that distinction and should be reminded from time to time.